Pell for (Very) Short-Term Credentials

A community college system leader and a higher education policy expert discuss the pros and cons of expanding the main federal financial aid program to include eight-week vocational programs.

July 2, 2021
 
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Congress recently opted not to fold into federal legislation on research and innovation a provision that would have made Pell Grants available to learners in very short-term training programs. But it is widely believed to be only a matter of time before federal law is changed to allow Pell funds to be used for that purpose.

Debate over that idea has smoldered for several years. In one corner, supporting the change, are community college leaders, many major corporations and groups focused on increasing the skills of the unemployed and other disadvantaged Americans. In the other are critics who argue that using Pell Grants for programs as short as eight weeks would hurt, not help, low-income and minority workers and learners.

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, featured conversations with Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and a board member of Rebuilding America’s Middle Class, and Amy Laitinen, director of higher education at New America. (Listen to the full episode here.)

An edited transcript of the interviews follows.

Inside Higher Ed: Monty, why would making Pell Grant funds available for very short-term programs be good for learners and workers in Louisiana and the rest of the United States?

Monty Sullivan: There are 64 million working-age adults in this country with a high school diploma or less. What that says to me is many of those individuals are not able to fully engage in the economy. They’re not able to take care of their families. What short-term training programs allow for is it gives people the opportunity to get into the economy. What we know for certain is, while unemployment may be high, there are a significant number of job postings out there today. This economy is coming back. People have to have skills in order to be able to engage in that economy.

The short-term training programs that are offered at community and technical colleges across this country need to be available to the masses. If you look historically across this country, we said back in the early 1900s that K-12 was compulsory, necessary in order to be able to participate as a full citizen. I believe today in 2020, 2021, we’re in a place where some training above high school is necessary to be able to participate fully in the economy. And that training takes place on many of our college campuses.

In Louisiana … our average student on the credit side of work is a 27-year-old African American female. The average student in our workforce noncredit training programs is a white male, age 36. The distinguishing factor between those two groups isn’t demographic at all, it’s financial. Those white males, on average 36, they have money in their pocket to pay for the training to be able either to get a job or continue to work.

By policy, this nation is limiting access to many people who are marginalized from having access to the workforce training they need to be able to go to work and take care of their families. So it is very much rooted in where we are historically in this country from an educational policy point of view; ensuring that there’s value in those credentials has to be certainly an element of the accountability side. But focusing on getting people into the economy, but that’s not the end point, it is the beginning point. And so continuing to ensure that there’s a career pathway beyond that is an important element.

Inside Higher Ed: So there are too many who either can’t afford what those programs cost or can’t afford to take time out of the workforce to complete the programs?

Monty Sullivan: The most important word you used in that question is "time." When you begin to think about the education and training needs that people have out there, time is the enemy -- time is money. For many of these individuals, childcare, transportation, the myriad of issues that they’re having to deal with. And so when we say to someone, why don’t you come back to school? Well, I don’t have four years to [earn] a baccalaureate degree, I don’t have two years to get an associate degree. I’ve got bills to pay; I’ve got children that are relying on me to provide for them. And so finding the way that gets them the greatest value of a credential in the shortest period of time is the issue.

Our adult students are done with the 16-week semester. They fundamentally don’t understand why we have to teach things in 16-week semesters. And the reality is, most of us within the academic world and the higher education space … we can’t answer the question, either. There is nothing major about seat time, and yet we have set federal policy around seat time. Instead, focusing on the outcomes and documenting a skill set that then allows someone to go to work, that should be more of the focus of the value of financial aid for programs.

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Inside Higher Ed: Amy, a lot of your work has been around new ways of thinking about higher education, including approaches like competency-based learning and alternatives to the four-year degree. Given that, I thought you might support the idea of using Pell funds for short-term programs. But as evidenced by the op-ed you wrote for us recently, you don’t. Why not?

Amy Laitinen: First of all, Pell can already be used for short-term programs, programs as short as 15 weeks. And I think that’s a real important thing to sort of get out there. Existing proposals would allow Pell to pay for programs as short as eight weeks. And you’re right, I have focused on the innovation in this space, so it might seem strange that I don’t support efforts like this.

I think the difference is that to me the innovations that I really have been focusing on have been around outcomes. So I really don’t care that much about how much time it took me to do a thing, right? In competency-based education, it’s not about the time, it’s about the outcome. Similarly, I probably wouldn’t care that much if we were using Pell to fund eight-week programs if those programs really did lead to the outcomes that the Pell Grant program is supposed to lead to, which is middle-class jobs. There are a few programs that you can do in eight weeks that will lead to a high-wage, good job, but there are very few. If eight-week programs led to middle-class jobs, we would see many, many more of them.

The problem with the Pell program is that it is a voucher that really has no strings attached to it. So it’s not an outcomes-based funding mechanism. If we were talking about an outcomes-based funding mechanism and we really wanted to focus on innovative programs that really catapulted people into the middle class, I would definitely be supportive. But that’s not what this does. In preying on vulnerable students and preying on students of color, promising them the world and leaving them in poverty, is not innovative, it’s sort of tried-and-true, been there, done that, and the idea that we’re going to turbocharge that with Pell dollars makes me very, very nervous.

Inside Higher Ed: Do we have data on the outcomes of eight-week programs that leave you concerned?

Amy Laitinen: There’s very little data. I’m wary of expanding to programs that we don’t have very much data on. But what we do know from existing data on existing programs that are already eligible for Pell, like certificates that are a year or less, is we know the outcomes are really bad. When we look at the gainful-employment data, we see how many students are in poverty-level jobs; when we last reviewed the data, something like three-quarters of completers were making less than a high school graduate. That’s not what these programs are supposed to do. And those are programs that are already eligible for Pell.

Data on very, very, very, very short-term programs, which is what I’m calling them, at eight to 15 weeks, is very limited. Roughly 40 percent of people are unemployed after earning their credential? So as we’re thinking that these credentials are supposed to lead to good-paying jobs, well, they don’t seem to be leading to many jobs at all. Of those who are getting jobs, about half of graduates from these very short-term programs earned $30,000 or less. And then for Black and Latino graduates, their earnings are typically $10,000 to $20,000 less. So we’re talking about low-paying jobs if you’re lucky enough to get a job, and where we see a dramatically disproportionate impact on students of color.

And what I’m worried about is, if we have these federal dollars going to these programs, colleges are going to offer them, they’re going to market them as leading to, you know, a middle-class job, [and] students are going to take them. Why wouldn’t they take them? And then students are going to be stuck in low-paying jobs. And who are they going to market them to? Who are the students who are going to take these shorter-term programs? We’re going to widen that already very wide gap between Black and white students. This is going to, you know, sort of dramatically increase students of color to very, very short-term credentials. And I think the equity implications of that are unconscionable and it’s just not what we’re being sold when folks are talking about this.

Inside Higher Ed: Monty, data about how programs like these have performed are pretty sparse, and those we have are mixed. A study about the Obama-era experiment on using federal aid for short-term programs found that doing so expanded enrollment and even completion but didn’t necessarily increase graduates’ income in the workforce. What is your read of the data and what are your lived experiences on whether greater access to these short-term programs will accomplish what we want it to do?

Monty Sullivan: I would point you to a study conducted by Dr. Chris Glass from Old Dominion University that looked at earnings increases as a result of short-term training programs. It looked at three states, Louisiana, Virginia and Colorado. What you saw is earnings increases on average 24 percent by those completing a short-term credential in the Virginia economy. Here in Louisiana, that lift was about 19 percent. If you think about it, a 19 percent increase is a game changer for many individuals. That 19 percent fundamentally means reliable transportation, reliable childcare. That allows people to get into the workforce, but that’s not the end of the discussion. That individual needs to continue to learn and increase those credentials across time that are ultimately going to allow them to become more employable, ultimately to work their way into the middle class …

One example is a Louisiana program for electrical linemen. As you know, we have unfortunately experienced this past year one of the highest numbers of hurricanes and disruptive events. [We have a program that provides people] that lineman certification, the safety certification that comes with it and a commercial driver’s license. When you put all of those together, individuals are walking out of these programs after a period of 10, 12 weeks earning $65,000 a year. That is a career that someone can make a good living at, have benefits that go along with them.

But we have to bundle those certifications in order to be able to meet federal financial aid requirements. The question by many people who walk into those programs is why do I have to get all three? Not because the employer is saying I won’t hire you without all three, it’s simply because of a federal financial aid mandate that counts seat time. Let’s ensure that people get what they need in order to be able to go to work, take care of their families, without some arbitrary number of minutes that they must sit in a seat.

Inside Higher Ed: You portray the use of Pell for shorter-term programs as a way to enhance equity in the postsecondary ecosystem. But some of the people who oppose using Pell in this way fear the doing so would worsen the divide and outcomes, with whiter and wealthier Americans increasingly pursuing four-year degrees, and Black, brown and low-income people being shunted more toward eight-week programs that don’t necessarily increase their wages. How do we make sure that doesn’t happen?

Monty Sullivan: That is a key part of this discussion. I want to begin by putting the question in the other direction, and point out that I think many of the detractors from the workforce Pell discussion, we have a great deal in common with. We all agree that more education is better. We all agree that people of all backgrounds should have access to education. The key difference is that the individuals that are focusing on short-term Pell or workforce Pell as being challenging in some way, or perhaps is going to widen the equity gap, are the very same elitists that have created much of what we see in this country in terms of the haves and have-nots educationally. So along the way, a one-shot baccalaureate degree is no longer the reality of adults. Instead, the higher education community and landscape has to adjust to the needs of the people.

A broader cross-section of the people of this country must have skills and certifications in order to be able to participate in the economy. The No. 1 talent fund that we have as a nation is the Pell Grant -- why would we limit 64 million working-age adults from having access to the kinds of training that will change their lives? The equity issue is not so much that we are aiming people toward lower-end careers. Instead, we are limiting them to the very base of the economy, and during COVID, those folks … have lost their jobs. They have no way to move forward. They need the skills that are there, and they simply do not have 600 hours to invest in a program.

Inside Higher Ed: Amy, some supporters of short-term Pell portray it as a way to bolster career-technical programs of study that they say get short shrift in our postsecondary ecosystem. Is that a valid argument?

Amy Laitinen: This is one of the canards of this whole conversation. Pell already pays for many career and technical programs, many, many credentials. One of favored programs that people talk about is welding. And they talk about welding for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that welders typically make pretty good money. People say, “We don’t support welders in this country. We don’t support welders in higher education.” It’s this false dichotomy, as if very many people anymore believe that it’s just four-year liberal arts degrees or nothing.

But the truth is Pell already pays for welding programs. My brother is in a welding program, a nine-month welding program. And most welding programs take between seven months and two years, because, guess what, welding is hard, it’s complicated. And don’t you want your welders to actually spend the right amount of time that it takes to learn to weld? Like, I want to drive across a bridge that’s been welded by someone who actually took the time that was needed to learn to weld.

We do pay for welding programs, they’re paid for with Pell Grants. It’s just this false “bootstrap working class against the elite.” And that’s just not how our higher education system is funded. It isn’t true. So welders already get Pell Grants. And if welders are taking shorter-term programs than that, well, let’s be careful.

Inside Higher Ed: Community college leaders are pretty strongly united be behind the use of Pell funds for very short-term programs. What is their motivation?

Amy Laitinen: They’re supporting it because it’s money. I don’t want to sound callous to the realities that community colleges are facing. I’m a community college graduate. I came to the Obama administration focusing on community colleges. I worked for Dr. [Jill] Biden. I believe in the power of community colleges. Community colleges are woefully underfunded? They’re sort of the stepchildren of higher education. There’s a lot of money in Pell, there’s a lot of bipartisan political support for Pell … The minute that you introduce Pell into this, which is, again, this basically mandatory voucher with no strings attached, you are allowing any institution to offer basically any program …

Inside Higher Ed: Monty, how do we go about ensuring that Pell funds aren’t used for programs that don’t deliver either quality or value?

Monty Sullivan: I do believe there needs to be accountability. I would agree with the detractors who suggest that there could be some issues with accountability. There are people from both sides of the aisle who have said we must invest in short-term training. We agree. But we also agree that there have to be some guardrails, there has to be some accountability. I would suggest to you that on the wider market, those programs that don’t result in value, I can assure you adults are not going to enroll. They don’t have time to enroll in programs that won’t bring them the value. Most of our adults, I believe, are from Missouri. They’re “show me” people. Show me someone who’s completed this credential that is working and show me the lifestyle that goes along with that, and I think that is the key point on accountability, is to make sure there’s a value for the student.

Inside Higher Ed: Can we just leave it up to the market, or is there a federal role?

Monty Sullivan: In terms of the value, the value needs to be a value to the consumer … to the individual. You could measure that in a whole host of ways. One is by accomplishing a professional certification, professional licensure of some type. No. 2 is the consistency of employment and the ability to be able to find employment as a result of that credential. The third is the earning, the wage. If you think of it, those last two are really demand as well as earnings …

I think there are myriad ways to go about it … In Louisiana, we have five pathways that are very clear, very distinct. Individuals aren’t enrolling in programs that are going to be dead end. They’re enrolling in programs that are going to be high value, that are consistently being reviewed across time to ensure that there is demand and that there is a good earning on the back end of it. And the fourth factor, I think, is that it continues to be a part of a pathway that allows someone to continue to be educated across time …

We are trying to ensure that this country rebuilds its middle class. And the way to do that is through giving people opportunities for short-term training and that iterative approach that a short-term credential can ultimately grow into a baccalaureate degree. It is not a choice of one or the other, as some would pose it. Instead, it’s an opportunity to continue education. Every one of us should be for more education for America. And this is what the workforce Pell initiative really proposes.

Inside Higher Ed: Political momentum in favor of short-term Pell seems pretty strong. If some version of it is going to become law, are there ways to formulate it that would avoid that pitfalls you’re most worried about?

Amy Laitinen: There are absolutely ways to do it, but there are no politically viable ways to do it. Let’s say you attached a wage floor [for graduates of the programs]. Very few programs will qualify. And the community colleges want money, the for-profits want money, the skills community wants money. But they’re not going to have that much money if this only pays for programs that lead to middle-class jobs. So I absolutely would support an outcomes-based opening of Pell, but that’s not what Pell is, that’s not what Pell does. And that’s not what has political support.

So I think momentum will continue to grow for this. I think that is likely to happen very soon. I think we’re going to come to regret it, but I think it’s likely to happen for all the reasons that we’ve been talking about. And some of it is just in the way that the narrative has been misconstrued to make it seem as if we’re setting it up for like four-year degrees or bust. And it’s just not the reality of what is, but it fits into a nice frame.

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